Enjoy the Journey

Travel and Exploration in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

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"They had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren shapes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before. Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward…"
     –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

Just as Hobbits on a long journey need to pause for their elevensies, we sometimes also find ourselves in need of a rest. On these occasions, we often join the developers of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game for a Second Breakfast.

In their Second Breakfast series of articles, the developers offer their insights into the game and the ways that it is meant to evoke the world and struggles of Middle-earth. These manifest in many different ways, but one of the most important of them is often quietly pushed to the background. After all, it is the background. No matter whether your heroes are fighting Orcs in the darkened corridors of Moria, racing through the Vale of Isen on an important quest for the White Council, or battling Ringwraiths just west of the Mountains of Ash, their surroundings make an invaluable contribution to the drama of their story.

This isn't just true for The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game; it's true for The Lord of the Rings, itself. And developer Matthew Newman has kindly volunteered, today, to join us for our Second Breakfast and share his thoughts on the themes of travel and exploration in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game.

Matthew Newman on Travel in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

Like the characters in Tolkien’s novels, heroes in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game must often travel across vast landscapes in order to complete their quest. Indeed, much of The Lord of the Rings trilogy can be described as “a trek across the known world.” Entire chapters of The Lord of the Rings are devoted to the characters’ journeys—the Hobbits’ trek from the Shire to Rivendell, the Fellowship’s journey through Moria, and many more. Oftentimes the primary obstacles in the Fellowship’s way are the vast and dangerous lands before them which they must traverse in order to reach their goal.

Likewise, locations and traveling pose a meaningful threat in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Locations hinder your fellowships in three ways—they contribute their Threat Strength while in the staging area, they act as buffers against your overall progress while they're active, and they sometimes inflict harsh, triggered penalties when you travel to them. Your primary means of interacting with locations is in the choice of which location you will travel to during the Travel phase. This choice becomes more complex and more interesting the more varied locations are; some locations, for example, provide beneficial effects when you travel to them, while others threaten to destroy your fellowship unless you explore them quickly.

Of course, you can also use card effects to place progress directly on locations. Decks that include Northern Tracker (Core Set, 45), Asfaloth (Foundations of Stone, 110), and similar cards can frequently explore locations without ever having to travel to them. While this is an exciting and empowering effect, it also makes the Travel phase less interesting, because there are less options from which to choose. Accordingly, this makes designing both locations and location-control effects a difficult tug-of-war.

Working to Create Meaningful Decisions

We took a close look at this back-and-forth play during the design of The Grey Havens and the Dream-chaser cycle. One of our goals was to add new forms of excitement to the Travel phase without sacrificing player power. At the same time, we wanted to add to your ability to manipulate and explore locations without de-valuing the Travel phase as a result. It took a great deal of imagination, but this was ultimately done in several ways. First and foremost, the Ocean locations are all designed with the concept that the decision of where to travel should be as tough a decision as possible. If you have a Fog Bank (Grey Havens, 34), Rolling Seas (Grey Havens, 51), and Rough Waters (Grey Havens, 53) in play, you have several things to consider:

  • Fog Bank has only two Threat Strength and five quest points, which makes traveling to it a poor choice if you're hoping to make progress on the quest. However, while it is the active location, your fellowship gains a measure of safety from Ship enemies. If you're under assault by Corsairs, traveling to the Fog Bank could be a great way to prevent their Ships from attacking or engaging… as long as you don’t get stuck there for too long.
  • On the other hand, Rolling Seas has a whopping four Threat Strength and only three quest points, meaning you'll likely want to travel to it to get it out of the staging area. But, in order to travel there, you must first shift your heading off-course. It's true that you may be able to recover from this set-back on your next turn, but the choice of traveling here could potentially spiral you further off-course and even lead to a complete defeat. Then again, if you don’t travel here, you have to deal with its four threat turn after turn after turn.
  • Finally, Rough Waters has only two Threat Strength and three quest points—an average location. But while it is in the staging area, it cancels the first Sailing success symbol found during each Sailing test, making your Sailing tests significantly more difficult. So the longer you wait to travel there, the more likely you are to sail off-course.

Then, of course, there are the Uncharted locations. Since this was the first time we’ve ever gone off the map of Middle-earth, we wanted to do something new and exciting with locations. I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of locations whose true identities and effects were hidden until you traveled to them. Since it was already exploring new places within the world of Tolkien's fiction, The Grey Havens was the perfect time to introduce this mechanic.

Not all Lost Island locations are the same. Click on any of the cards above to discover their flip sides.

On the one hand, this makes traveling exciting in that you never quite know what you’re going to get. However, since all of these locations are essentially the same until you travel to them, their design also runs counter to the earlier point about ensuring the Travel phase includes tough decisions. Furthermore, we didn’t want to completely devalue cards that place progress on locations in the staging area. So, all copies of Lost Island have an ability that allows you to peek at their facedown side once you place enough progress on them. This helps keep the Travel phase fresh and exciting, while still maintaining the element of surprise.

What Can the Players Do?

The Dream-chaser cycle continues to expand upon this idea with even more new ways for players to manipulate and explore locations. As previously mentioned, it is important for the balance between locations and players to be maintained. You need to feel empowered by your cards, while at the same time, you must feel threatened by the locations you face. So, while many of the location-control cards in this cycle place progress directly onto locations, they do so in unique ways.

For example, Rhovanion Outrider (Temple of the Deceived, 62) is a three-cost Spirit ally with a response that reads: “After Rhovanion Outrider commits to the quest, place 1 progress on a location in the staging area. If that location is not explored by this effect, give Rhovanion Outrider +1 Willpower until the end of the phase.” On its surface, the Outrider is a cheaper—albeit weaker—version of the Northern Tracker. However, its ability to gain a bonus point of Willpower if the chosen location is not explored allows for some interesting decisions, and can even combo with cards that move progress like the Ravenhill Scout (The Redhorn Gate, 8), or another new ally, the Mirkwood Explorer (The Thing in the Depths, 37).

This hearty fellow has two abilities, one that places progress on him whenever he quests successfully, and one that moves all of the progress placed on him onto a location of your choice. The Mirkwood Explorer is a great inclusion in any Lore deck that needs some extra questing power. Get a few progress on him and he can help you clear out a troublesome location, or perhaps peek at the facedown side of an Uncharted location.

Finally, if balancing acts are your thing, check out Hithlain (The Drowned Ruins, 88). This card is a one-cost Spirit attachment that attaches to any location, active or in the staging area, and allows you to place one progress on that location every time a player plays a Silvan ally. Given the Silvan theme of jumping in and out of play, this attachment could potentially allow you to clear out a tough location the very turn it enters play, especially when combined with the Woodland Courier (The Drowned Ruins, 87).

The Best Is Yet to Come

I hope you enjoy these twists to the classic themes of exploration and travel in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. With the first of the Dream-chaser cycle looming on the horizon, locations are about to become even more exciting. Turbulent waters and underwater caves will test every ounce of your spirit. Good luck!

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